Tuesday’s Top Ten: Video Games published in 1996

It’s that time again, folks—time for another Tuesday’s Top Ten!  Each week, we go through the top ten something-or-others in some even vague fashion relating to video games, and today’s list is an actual list of titles.  This week, we’re going to go through the top ten games published fifteen years ago, in ‘Ninety-Six.

The ‘Nineties were good to gamers, arguably the best any decade has been before or since.  Earlier, developers were figuring out this whole “playing video games at home” thing, seeing what could be done at all, at times blindly wading through the murky waters of technological possibility and ingenuity.  Since then, it can be argued that developers and/or gamers had set limits on what would sell, so the developers were finding new ways to tweak old ideas, old tropes, as it were, to fit within those constraints.

The ‘Nineties, on the other hand—that was the decade where developers and gamers alike had started to realize what games could do, and were starting to see what games would do.  It was a time of taking what had been established and twisting it all around, a time of pushing system limits and gamer expectations as far as possible—then pushing them a little farther.

Some innovation was technological in nature, finding ways to tweak a game engine to work with the specified processing power in ways that weren’t before thought possible to deliver fun experience.  Some of the innovation was in finding out how odd, weird, or downright wacky games could be and still be accepted by gamers.

As we’ll see, it was also a decade where a lot of game franchises we know today were either born or take their cues.

10. Sid Meier’s Civilization II
The Civilization series has always been popular, and with good reason.  The first one showed how real-time strategy games could be interesting, complex, and compelling.

Sid Meier’s Civilization II took everything that was in the first one and ramped it up.  There were more races to choose from—and even the ability to customize a race to one’s heart’s content—cultures were more varied and represented with more visual distinctions, the sound effects were fantastic—fitting without being aurally invasive.  Over all, it proved that sometimes sequels can far exceed expectations set by the original.

09. Duke Nukem 3D
I dare say it’s inarguable that Doom set the standard for F.P.S.es.  It was—and in some ways still is—the paragon that all other F.P.S.es are compared to.  What Duke Nukem 3D did was take the established convention and bring a sense of humor previously unknown to the then-new genre.

Up until 3D, the franchise had been a pretty straightforward side-scrolling action-based platformer.  Here’s Duke, here’s a gun, there are some enemies, go shoot them.  3D, however, started down a different path.

One of the more memorable things about the game is the friendly rivalry developer 3D Realms Entertainment had with Core Design Ltd., developers of the early entries in the Tomb Raider franchise.  As seen here and here, 3D Realms poked some fun at Core Design’s heroine.  If you watch this Let’s Play of it, you’ll find a lot of humorous one-liners, more friendly prods, and more.

08. Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
While I won’t name names, of late vampires are still struggling to be seen as actually threatening hunters.  While our movies and even games try to get over the taint of “sparklepires” or mindless beasts, we sometimes forget that vampires used to be vicious, blood-thirsty, predatory, and most of all, fun as heck.  Legacy of Kain had one of the worst vampires known—and it handed control of that vampire to the player.

The one truly bad thing that could be said about it was that the load times took forever.  In and of itself that’s not bad, but that you had to endure the long waits when going between rooms in the same building, it got really tedious, really quickly.  Still—the game was just too good.  As you shape-shifted between a few different forms, you fed on villagers, slew enemies, and kept your enemies from gaining too much power.

Legacy of Kain was one of those in that made it popular to defy conventional genre conceptions.  Part R.P.G., part action, part adventure, and more—it blended genres together into an interesting game.  The sound was perfect, the graphics surprisingly good for being two-dimensional sprites, and one of the first games to really take advantage of the fact that, being a C.D.-based game, they didn’t need to make the players read walls of text.  Instead, there were fantastic voice actors cast, who mostly played their parts perfectly.  Over all, it was a game that was simply wonderful.

07. Tekken 2
From the get-go, the Tekken series did things a little differently, making it closer to Virtua Fighter in its attempt to just let two characters duke it out, hand to hand.  No fireballs, no ice blasts, just hand-to-hand combat.

What helped make Tekken 2 shine was—quite a lot of things.  The graphics were superb, better than many would have expected from a fighting game, and with almost two dozen characters—about half had to be unlocked—the player was almost guaranteed to not get bored.  The combat itself was intense, with characters doing things to each other that I’m pretty sure are considered major felonies in most states.

The only real downside was that the controls offered a very steep learning curve, which was likely why it had a “practice mode” before they became common in fighting games.  Still and all, Tekken 2 was another entry that took everything the original had and made it better.

06. Star Ocean
The N.E.S. and its successor the S.N.E.S. had large R.P.G. libraries, and most of the entries were quite fun.  As such it took a special “something” to make an R.P.G. title shine—and Star Ocean had more “somethings” than you could shake a stick at.

Since it was worked on by many people who had earlier worked on Tales of Phantasia, it had a few stylistic and even feature similarities, though the differences far outweighed them.  The battle system was unique, the cartridge came with a special chip inside to compress graphics (which allowed for a much better range of graphics, and allowed them to look better), the soundtrack was simply stellar—over all, it was a better title than anyone would have expected the S.N.E.S.’ library, and the bar had already been set pretty high.

05. Diablo
After the success of Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal, publisher Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. developed and published Diablo.  It was incredibly easy to get into—point and click for most things, with keyboard shortcuts easy to remember; I for inventory, for example—and sported a fantastic tale of adventurers fighting demons to save the world itself.

It was, as I said, easy to get into, both for fans of the Warcraft games and gamers new to computer-based gaming.  That helped make it such a popular franchise, and while it perhaps can be said to never having quite become as popular as Warcraft, Diablo developed its own incredibly loyal fans—Blizzard’s nearly trademarked brand of unique humor injected into the game at nearly every opportunity only helped.

04. Earthworm Jim 2
I’ve mentioned this game twice already, once in a Friday Flashback Five post and once in a different Tuesday Top Ten post.  There’s a good reason it gets mentioned thrice, now—yes, it was weird-and-not-in-a-good-way, and yes it was a sequel so had shades of “sequelitis” (but only shades), but it was fun.  It was as irreverent as its predecessor, making it really fun to just play through it.

03. Tomb Raider
Action-adventure puzzle games didn’t come any better than this.  The action was stellar, the puzzles delightfully infuriating, and the best part was that the protagonist was a woman who wasn’t a sexpot.  While she did have certain, shall we say, assets that were rather noticeable, they weren’t really a part of her character, or intended as a focus for the player.  Instead, she was intelligent, sarcastic, quite happy and willing to get her hands dirty and her knees scuffed as she traipsed through tombs and brandished her firearms against tigers, wolves, and enemy raiders.

The game showed the player it was going to be something interesting, different, and fun right from the get-go with the training level.  It took place in her home, in a dining room-turned-gym, which also spoke to her personality.  The game as a whole had so many little touches like that—things that showed her steely will, her inquisitive mind, or her complete lack of caring for the social niceties that her “class” would have required.  She was a heroine female and male gamers alike could enjoy.

02. WipEout XL
Racing titles at the time all followed the same basic formula—you had your cars, you had your tracks, and you raced around the latter with the former as quickly as possible.  Whomever was the fastest won.  If you were lucky you unlocked cars and/or tracks, but the fun was mainly in the racing itself.

The WipEout series changed all of that.  You had weapons to use against opponents (something Carmageddon wouldn’t make popular for another year), “ships” with their stats shown right there on the screen (something unusual at the time), incredibly great-looking and detailed graphics, and—well, it just kept going.  Sadly this was a title that never gained the popularity it deserved, and WipEout XL showed that it really did deserve it.  Catch a Let’s Play of it here.

01. Super Mario 64
As difficult as it might be to realize, there was a time when gamers wondered if Mario could really “make it” in the three-dimensional world.  Further, “true” three-dimensional games were still mostly unknown at this time—you had games like Crash Bandicoot and such which were rendered in three-dimensional graphics and had a few exploratory parts, but Super Mario 64 was one of the first to truly feel like a three-dimensional world.  That it was on the cartridge-based N64 only made it more remarkable.

You met all of the old enemies to once again take the fight straight to Bowser.  The world felt superbly Mario-ish, with combat that was cartoon-y without being cumbersome, and though there were a few surprisingly minor camera issues, for even casual Mario fans it was a fantastic game.  It pushed gamer expectations, it pushed the console, and nearly ensured that three-dimensions really were the future of gaming.


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